October 8, 2019
As a college professor, an education coach, a kindergarten teacher, a yoga instructor, and a doula, Jeré Davis is credentialed and accredited in a dizzying number of ways. Getting to know Jeré, I found that even when she’s not “officially” teaching, she’s always teaching. Her lessons aren’t confined to the classroom, the lecture hall, or the yoga studio because Jeré is educating everywhere: over margaritas, at the dog park, and from her living room couch. Before our interview, I assumed I would learn specific things from Jeré, like how New York City educational bureaucracy works and what happens when you coax a senior citizen into downward dog. What I didn’t anticipate was being so thoroughly schooled about matters of my own life.
Sitting with Jeré, whose general philosophy is, “Be rigorously honest with yourself and others all the time, no matter what,” it was impossible not to reflect on my own choices, relationships, and values. Her personal ontology is informed by the idea that knowing and sharing your personal truth is urgent and imperative. In this way, even casual small talk becomes loaded with significance and transformed into weighty conversation. After our initial encounter I planned to try, in some small way, to follow the example she sets as an intentional, direct, and open communicator. The results were immediate. Stress dissipated, big problems became small, and my internal monologue quieted. To realize as a grown woman that the remedy to many of life’s agonies is so simple was both a great relief and truly embarrassing. How had I gotten in my own way for so long? For Jeré, an important question as an educator and a coach is: What can we learn from the ways we resist learning? Jeré intuited early that self-awareness can mitigate suffering. She integrates that insight into her personal life and professional practice every day. The idea also animates her work with Full Wheel, the non-profit she founded with Kathryn Camacho to bring yoga and wellness techniques to underserved communities in and around New York City.
Jeré travels from borough to borough and state to state helping teachers become more skilled and successful in their classrooms so that students have access to the quality education they deserve. When Jeré and I first talked about her career, the college admissions scandal (involving Hollywood parents and their bratty kids, falsified applications and thousands of dollars in bribes) was just breaking in the news. As background noise to our discussion, the drama was only the most recent example of fundamental problems that Jeré explores in her work. As an educator, she asks: Who does the American school system serve? How much does a quality education cost? If the classroom is a battleground for social justice issues, how do we fight for underserved kids?
Has teaching always been part of your career plan? After college you taught kindergarten in New York City but now you work as an education coach, helping educators and administrators in different school districts improve so that their students can succeed. How did you transition into these different roles, which all involve teaching but each represent a different practical and philosophical approach to what education means?
I ran from education. I did not want to be an educator. I never wanted to be, even though my first job was across the street at a daycare when I was thirteen. I taught gymnastics for years. I’ve always been teaching but I never wanted to be a “teacher.” I was like: “Hell no, I don’t want to do that, who wants to do that every day?” I have so many friends who say in disbelief: “You? You are an educator?”
After studying psychology in undergrad, I looked for HR positions and business positions but teaching just kept calling me. I applied for the Teaching Fellows, which is a free masters program through New York State like Teach for America but specifically for New York. You work for two years, you get a degree at the end, then you’re placed in a school. I didn’t get in so I took a job with the Board of Education as a case manager for students who were suspended.
In New York state, if you do an egregious act, you get kicked out of your school for six months to a year depending on your infraction. But because of the law FAPE, which says everyone’s entitled to a free and appropriate education, you are never really kicked out. It’s a step below juvie. There were fights and fights and fights. Students, staff, all of it. As the case manager I ran the very small budget. I thought, “I don’t know why they’re fighting. What are some things that we can do to problem solve?” My crew started a system where you got points for good behavior. You worked towards a bronze, silver, or gold score range and then your name went in a hat and you got a chance to go on one of the trips that I put money into. Students were invested in it.
The program got cut because of tight budgets and, because I was in a contract position, I left. The next year I started assisting at a kindergarten — mainly because when I was a case manager the mother of a student who was misbehaving said to me: “I don’t know what you want me to do, he’s been doing this since he was five.” I had a lightbulb moment. I thought, “Okay, kids are really hard to handle from thirteen to eighteen but I can do four. I can start them young.” I’ve never left early childhood education since then.
When I had been assistant-teaching for a few years I started to have ideas and questions about what a getting a quality education really means. I applied to the Teaching Fellows again and got in but everyone kept saying: “Go to Bank Street.” Bank Street is a teaching school with its own unique model, like Reggio Emilia or Waldorf theory, and it proposes that children are a part of this world and that their world should be integrated into the everyday. It’s very inquiry-based: let’s find out, let’s explore.
Bank Street is based on building relationships. In order for you to help others, you have to know yourself. As teachers, we do genograms on ourselves, where you trace back the patterns of your family because a lot of you is generational. You’re going to bring in your own biases, you’re going to bring your whole self and experiences to places where you are going to be leading, so it is important for you to know a lot about yourself. What do I know about myself? How do I handle myself in these situations? That really got me thinking about: How do I treat someone’s education? How do I deal with race and gender in education?
I probably like early childhood development because it’s one of the places where a lot of the priority is focused on highlighting the whole person, really taking care of the social-emotional, where we can do music, art, academics. You’re really taking care of someone and their wellbeing and through that wellbeing showing them that they can thrive.
I first encountered you as a yoga teacher, through your work with Full Wheel, the non-profit you founded. I can see now how that project is an extension of your concerns about access, education, and justice. How did yoga enter your life and what impact, if any, has it had on the way you approach teaching?
A few years ago I was teaching kindergarten at a place that wasn’t philosophically aligned with my beliefs. I was really frustrated at my job because I felt like it didn’t matter if I was right about something, my ideas weren’t being heard. A friend from grad school asked me, “Hey, have you ever tried yoga?” I started taking classes as a release from that stress.
My last year teaching I taught in an integrated classroom: half the class was special needs and the other half was not. I needed yoga every day to be kind to the students every day. It was a lot. I had a student with oppositional defiance disorder. I couldn’t figure out her triggers because her behavior was happening all the time, so I would go to yoga. I would tell my kindergarten students, “I went to yoga last night, do you want to know what I learned? Come, let’s breathe together. I’m going to show you this tree pose, do you want to try that?” I started thinking, Wow, this class that should be climbing up the walls is not and I think a lot of it has to do with how much I take from my yoga practice and bring in every day. I’m sharing a lot: We are mindful, we’re taking care of each other, we’re taking care. That year I quit teaching kindergarten, four or five years ago now. I just couldn’t do it anymore. A lot of my dissatisfaction had to do with larger policy issues.
I decided I wanted to do a yoga kids training. I wanted to teach yoga to kids because I realized, Oh my god, this could be so helpful for all of them. Sky Ting, where I practiced, was not offering a teacher training, they barely had a studio then. Eventually the training happened and I did it. It was a lot. I was working two jobs and doing that, which is a big commitment.
After getting certified at Sky Ting, Kathyrn Camacho and I taught yoga as volunteers for over a year at the Greater Chinatown Community Association. Our students, a group of Chinese women and men over the age of sixty, showed up for class every Saturday for over a year. As new teachers, Camacho and I used the time as an opportunity to practice; we learned to modify and take risks. The group started out holding a pose for one breath and eventually was holding for a count of five or six and exploring with inversions. Our oldest practitioner was 83! It was eye-opening to see how much of an impact the teaching had on us individuals and the group as a whole. We learned to trust each other and from there became empowered.
Eventually, our space and time slot was taken over by the church the organization was affiliated with. It was sad to see the class end; everyone was heart broken. That's when we decided to start Full Wheel. We wanted to keep that pulse going and spread it wherever we could. It was a no-brainier.
After your stint as a kindergarten teacher, you were offered private contracts and contracts with the New York City Department of Education to work for weeks or months with different school districts on particular problem areas, like weak math programs or ineffective communication in the classroom. At the same time, you are a professor at Hunter College. Could you describe the mix of contracts and jobs you have at any one time?
Right now, I teach in the Department of Curriculum and Teaching at Hunter and I work with my grad students at whatever school they’re teaching at. Part of that job involves going with them a few times a semester to observe their teaching styles in the classroom. I also have a contract where I go to New Jersey and I’m there with the administration, I’m talking to teachers, working to help improve their schools underneath one hub. When I was in Rhode Island for a few weeks recently for a short-term contract, I was working with teachers in kindergarten through second grade in a particular district on how to solve problems they’re encountering. My schedule and assignments vary.
I love coaching. I really do. I get all the perks of being in the classroom, of being around kids, but I don’t take home all the BS that comes with it. So it’s really fun. I love my days.
What is your approach to talking to and coaching adult professionals? I imagine teaching kindergarteners is very different from teaching your own peers. How do you avoid hurting people’s feelings when you have to offer criticism? How can you be efficient and effective with your time when you have such a short window to affect change through these contracts?
I need people to be reflective. I, unfortunately, have to hold a mirror up and people don’t want to look in the mirror. I’m the lens that is never there and now I’m pointing problems out. “Did you notice that? Did you notice the way they responded to you? Did you mean for that? Is that the way you wanted them to respond?” I like to preface with, “We are going to unearth some things, some things may come up. We are here to improve upon our practice so that children can get a better education. That’s it.” It’s not about me. I’m really thinking about the teacher and I’m thinking about the kids.
I used to do year-long coaching contracts and I could really move into the depths and have continuity with the teachers. If I’m here for a day or two and I won’t be back for six weeks, it is hard to have meaningful conversations so I really need to prioritize what I want to say and how I want to say it. I have to feel it out and ask: What’s my relationship with this teacher? People’s defensiveness is hard. It doesn’t help that I have a young face. Teachers are like, “You? You’re going to tell me? How long have you been doing this for?” If I don’t have a relationship where I can just jump into the hard stuff, I have to take a step back and I have to really hear the person before I begin.
I also have to have a filter because a lot of people want to tell you what they think you want to hear. I wish they wouldn’t do that. I love when teachers ask, “Can I just be honest?” I’m like, “Please!” They say, “I haven’t done anything differently since you left.” I’m like, “Great! Thank you for that. Let’s talk about why.” That’s when I’ll jump in and ask what has been hindering them from doing something new or changing their behavior and then we can go from there.
You are a very direct and open person: you make it clear that you mean what you say and say what you mean. Have you always been a natural communicator or did your training as a teacher help you develop that?
I think my mom really helped support me in my communication style and grow me in that. When I was getting my hair done when I was younger, she would set me up, leave and come back to find me crying and she would ask me: “Why are you crying?” I would say: “I don’t like the way my hair looks.” And she would say, “And you sat there? And watched them do it? I don’t know what to tell you. They will do whatever you want. If you don’t like it, you need to say something.” It started there, that young, learning that your voice does have power in ways that you don’t think it does. Now, I know: Say something, speak up, ask for help, do these things that are going to help support you. That’s something that I try to teach other people.
Adult to child, her way of teaching and communicating was “Do as I say,” which is probably why I teach in a different way now, like: “Let me explain this to you, let me help you figure this out.” Because me just saying “No” is not enough. (She still doesn’t give explanations to me as an adult.)
Everyone’s always told me, “You’re such a good communicator.” I say, “I’ve gotten better at being heard.” That means my delivery is becoming better because I am able to pick out how a message should be relayed. Is this a situation where I really need to shoot the arrow direct? Or is it where I need to retract and be quiet? I am getting better at communicating in that regard. I’m very direct, still. I’m less cavalier about how it comes out.
There are barriers to access and vast quality disparities in the education, wellness, and healthcare worlds, often falling along racial and class lines. Can you talk a little about how these issues of inequality arise in your work? How does your teaching philosophy reflect your commitment to social justice?
The education system is an antiquated system. Contemporary issues of inequality in education manifest when children and families from poor and low-income communities are held to tougher academic standards and principles. They are not being provided with an abundance of resources and support to meet these standards. Families are asked to assimilate and cultures are being silenced rather than celebrated in schools. The teacher turnover rates are high, which doesn’t support building healthy secure attachments. Often times teachers from alternative route programs with very little training in education are placed in these neighborhoods and environments. Charter schools, which pop up in mostly low income and poor neighborhoods, use fear-based tactics to “motivate” and “drive” children towards their definition of “success.” Suburban children — hell, children who live in Brooklyn Heights and Park Slope — would never endure a day like that experienced by their brown peers. Their parents wouldn’t stand for it. They are free to be, while the rest of us are stuck in a racist, biased, antiquated militaristic education system. If we are thinking about education as a form of social justice then where are we in society?
Brown vs. Board of Education was not that long ago. We have to look at the way the system was set up and be really honest in saying that it was set up for white children to prosper, while brown children are left to fend for themselves and make due with what they are given. Separate and definitely not equal. Go to a rezoning town-hall. Every time there is discussion about integration, bringing more inclusivity and diversity to a school and neighborhood district, reformers are met with push back. Why? Why wouldn’t you want your child to grow up and thrive in an environment where they would be forced to think about a world beyond themselves? Look at all the backlash Mayor de Blasio got for merely suggesting opening up alternative assessments systems in order for bring about more diversity to specialized high schools such as Stuyvesant and Bronx School of Science. People say they want diversity and inclusivity but based on the standards of those who hold power and have privilege. They want Beyonce and her family to move into the neighborhood and go to school with their children, not Cardi B and hers. Why would you want to narrow the path of opportunity for those who do not have access? How will their success hinder yours?
My teaching philosophy reflects my commitment to social justice in that I have stayed in the field of education, become an educational leader, received training from-top notch educators and brought that knowledge to communities with less power. It shows in how I bring friends of color to join me in being a decision maker. I am an advocate, I speak up for the rights of children and families, I don’t take contracts that use a deficit model lens to educate and train teachers, and I ask “Why?”
Much of the work you do includes considerable emotional labor — more care-taking and sensitivity than is required in other fields. How do you grapple with that constant output? How do you wind down from the intensity of such regular intimacy?
I have gotten much better at not personalizing interactions that do not turn out so well. I go through many steps of reasoning in my head as to why I am getting the response I am getting from the person I am working with. I have gotten much better at sitting and listening, and allowing flexibility on achieving the goals we are set to work on. I know the importance of building relationships so I sit in the understanding that people are bringing their past to the table and there will be fear and skepticism around the work we may be doing together.
Outside side of going to yoga, some ways I wind down are by taking naps. I enjoy my own company and I say “no” to invites I don’t particularly want to go to. I am thoughtful about who I spend my personal time with and how it is spent. My friends are all over the place, so if my schedule opens up, I try and get out of town and visit them.
I am definitely trying to establish new habits with work and set new expectations, and it starts with me saying “Yes, I can take that day off,” or “No, I don’t need another contract.” Being very content with what I have in front of me, enjoying that and not always being on the “go and get it.” I already have everything I need and then some. Healthy boundaries are important.